9 December: Save The Date!

On 9 December 2016, the Bridging the Unbridgeable project will organise a usage guides symposium at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. Speakers will include Rebecca Gowers (author of the revised edition of Plain Words and of the recently published Horrible Words), … Continue reading

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I’m good, I’m fine

About a year ago, Morana and I posted a survey on this blog to try and collect data about attitudes to the flat adverb. We wanted to use the data for a paper we were writing at the time. But we also asked if people could tell us about other usage problems they saw or heard around them, or at least, in as far as they perceived them as such. Amazingly (at first sight that is, since the survey was on the flat adverb), some people mentioned the increasing use of “I’m good” in reply to the question “How are you?”.

But something else is at stake here than the idea that well should be used instead of good. As a Spanish website for learners of English explains the difference, well is used when you are not sick (ill?), and good when you are feeling happy. It seems to me that the complaint rather has to do with the increasing use of “I’m good” in a context where in the past “I’m fine” would be the expected reply, to express both that you were in good health and feeling happy. At least, that is what I was taught to say in school – a long time ago, I admit.

Often, people start commenting on particular features of usage when there is a noticeable increase in frequency of the feature in question. This definitely goes for me: I still remember when I first started noticing the use of “I’m good” in contexts where I expected “I’m fine” – 2011 when we were living in the UK for six months. So is there a real increase of the usage? Not if you check frequencies on Google books, where you can see (with the help of Google n-gram) a spectacular increase not of “I’m good” but of “I’m fine”, both in British and American English. (So the Brits would not be able to blame the Americans for this feature!)

Is there a real or only a perceived increase of “I’m good” at the expense of “I’m fine”? And if there is, is this an age-related feature, and will “I’m good” eventually take over? And for our interests in this project, will “I’m fine/good” develop into a usage problem?

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Whether or not?

My colleague Ton van der Wouden would like to know if whether or not  is a usage problem – or not. He noticed an enormous increase in usage (Google Books) over the last eighty years or so. As far as I know, it is not an issue dealt with in any of the usage guides I’ve seen. Can anyone help him find any literature about it?

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Seeing usage problems around every corner!

Here is Bram Steijn‘s second blog post for the MA course Testing Prescriptivism: 

I was sitting in the train, checking my Facebook messages, when I stumbled upon the following mistake in someone’s profile text: “living life at full”. The person in question wasn’t a native English speaker, so I let him off (as you do as a student enrolled in a course like “Testing Prescriptivism”). Instead, I internally corrected the sentence to “living life to the fullest” and put the case to rest.

However, the second I did so, I started questioning my correction. Can something be fuller than full? Surely it cannot. Suddenly, “living life to the fullest” sounded odd. Yet the alterative, “living life to the full”, felt even more out of keeping. Which version was correct? As someone who holds a BA in English literature and language – and is currently pursuing his MA – I felt horribly incompetent when I realised that I could not answer this clearly simple question with a certain resoluteness and authority. I also did not have my copy of Oliver Kamm’s usage guide with me at the time I spotted the mistake, so I could not consult his wisdom either. A quick search in Google nGram revealed that in the English language “living life to the fullest” became significantly more popular than its “living life to the full” counterpart after the year 1983.

Living life to the full fullest

Based on this, it seemed that “living life to the fullest” was the way forward. So just when I thought I had found the answer, the train stopped at some station and an advertisement like the one below came into sight: “taste life to the full”. It was now no longer just a minor annoyance.

As soon as I got home, I turned to my volume of Oliver Kamm’s usage guide. While there was no entry dedicated to “full vs. fullest”, there was a section on absolute adjectives. Kamm mentions that language pedants are of the opinion that absolute adjectives such as peerless, matchless, eternal, and also full, “cannot have superlatives” (Kamm 2015: 147). Kamm believes differently and remarks that “you can go right ahead and use comparatives, superlatives and intensifiers with absolute adjectives; the best writes do” (Kamm 2015: 148).

Even though I now had my answer, I decided to consult the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English to find out which version was more popular among users of the English language. The results from the BNC are overwhelmingly in favour of “life to the full” (49 hits vs. 3 for “life to the fullest”). The situation is reversed when we look at COCA. Not only is “life to the full” recorded less frequently than “life to the fullest”, the corpus also shows that the former is in decline, whereas the frequency for the latter is steadily increasing. After I discovered that Google nGram can differentiate between British and American English, I queried it again. The results are striking (you can find out exactly how striking, by setting the language in the box below the query box to either British or American English).

I decided to put these results to the test and ask both a Brit and an American to finish the following sentence: “Living life to the …”. The results, while by no means scientific, were entertaining. My American classmate (thank you, Madeleine) immediately finished my sentence by saying “fullest”. My British and Scottish friends, however, did the same! Both went for “fullest” over “full”.

Having given this topic more thought that it probably deserves, I have decided that even the initial ‘mistake’ I spotted was altogether fine. After all, I knew what the person in question meant. He thus communicated perfectly with me and, in all likelihood, with everybody else who read it. Besides, Milton employed a similar construction in his writing when he wrote: “[h]is Regal State Put forth at full” (OED) – a construction which, although obsolete now, was considered legitimate at the time Milton was writing his epic Paradise Lost. Personally, I can see the point that a glass cannot be fuller than full, and that one encounter cannot be more fatal than the next, but if you are only living life to the full, then you simply are not trying hard enough!

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And the winner is …

This morning, I’ve been going through the HUGE database to find out which of the 123 usage problems was treated most by the usage guides (77 in all). Does anyone want to make a guess?




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Can your local accent hold you back?

Do people need to change their local accents to get on in life? The answer is “yes” according to those advocating a prescriptivist approach to language use who often emphasize that in professional settings and in job interviews local accents and nonstandard English can hold you back.
Local accents seem to be a real obstacle for trainee teachers in the UK according to a recent study conducted by Dr Alex Baratta, a lecturer at the University of Manchester. Baratta interviewed trainee teachers both from the northern and t'No Rusty; not 'bark, bark'. It's; 'buerk, buerk'.'he southern English universities and found that the ones from the north of England were told to modify and tone down their accents in the classroom by their teacher training mentors. He goes to conclude from the data analysed that intolerance towards accents constitutes “the last form of acceptable prejudice” and that a culture of linguistic prejudice is part of the teaching profession in the UK. The study has received much attention from the press and it was reported on in The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Sun. BBC Radio Cumbria featured a segment on the topic in which the host Kevin Fernihough (a dialect speaker himself) talked to William Hanson, an etiquette expert, and Jane Setter, Professor of Phonetics at the University of Reading. You can listen to the entire segment here (00:38:16 – 00:59:40). Surprisingly perhaps, the two guests who respectively represented the prescriptive and the descriptive side of the debate agreed on their views regarding Baratta’s study in stating that regional accents, as long as the speaker’s words are pronounced clearly, should not be banned from the classroom or as Setter puts it “What on Earth does it matter as long as the speaker is clearly spoken, it shouldn’t matter that they have a regional accent”.  Any thoughts on the results of the study? Leave your comments below.

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We’re/were: huh?

Recently, one of my English Facebook friends wrote that she and her family had just survived a very cold May Bank Holiday weekend camping with snow on the hills. “We’re you in a caravan?” one of her friends asked. We’re for were? I understand problems with there/they’re/their, its/it’s, your/you’re, since these are homophones, and the absence or presence of the apostrophe is merely a matter of convention. But we’re/were are not homophones, so what is going on?

If you google for “we’re or were”, you get to a Dutch site called “Nu beter Engels”, which explains the difference between where, were and we’re. The site calls these words twijfelwoorden, a lovely word I hadn’t come across before either, which may be translated as “confusables”, a word I first came across in Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English by Caroline Taggart (2010). The book has as many as THIRTY pages of them, but we’re/were is not included.

Googling for we’re/were also took me to Paul Brians’s website accompanying his book Common Errors in English Usage (2003): it was actually the first hit. Brians explains the difference between the two forms. I can see that they might be problematical for non-native speakers of English, but for native speakers of English, too? I would never have guessed it, but apparently so.

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Pinker’s Sense of Style translated into Dutch

Yesterday, I accidentally came across the translation into Dutch of Pinker’s The Sense of Style in a bookshop here in The Hague. Amazing, an English style-cum-usage guide translated into Dutch. A much earlier similar attempt, the translation of Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves into Dutch, under the title Eten, Vuren en Beuken, by Wim Daniëls, fell quite flat. It was a peculiar mix of English and Dutch, that to my mind didn’t quite seem to work. This same criticism is also levelled at the Pinker translation by a reviewer for the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, though, awarding the book three stars (out of five), the author is still fairly positive about the book’s general message. It’ll be interesting to see how well this translation is going to do.

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